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A CurtainUp Review
Madame Melville

Macaulay Culkin &  <br> Joely Richardson
Macaulay Culkin &
Joely Richardson
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Madame Melville, the latest London import currently at the Promenade, travels the well-worn path of plays (Tea and Sympathy), films (Summer of '42) ) and books (The Reader) about young boys' sexual awakenings by older women. Written and directed by Richard Nelson, who has already touched on this theme in his Good Night Children Everywhere, this slight, circa 1966, coming of age episode does not venture into any new or particularly provocative detours (as was the case with The Reader which framed the personal story in the context of a major moral issue).

Madame Melville rises above mawkish kitsch because the lonely teenager Carl's sexual rite of passage is almost peripheral to his becoming attuned to new ideas and acquainted with more open and outspoken adults. The casting of erstwhile child movie star Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone) as the alienated fifteen-year-old ripe for seduction has given the London and New York productions a decidedly new-fashioned celebrity buzz.

Does Culkin, the movie actor, deliver the goods as Culkin the stage actor? Yes and no.

Though almost twenty-one, the actor easily passes for fifteen. His pale face and the sand-colored hair cut to resist staying off his forehead give him the edge of looking tailor-made for the part. But he doesn't rely on his looks alone and has nailed down the role's demand for physically expressing the awkward insecurity of a sensitive tenth grader. His body language fully conveys young Carl's bit by bit change from stiff uncertainty to giggly contentment. During his brief opening and closing stint as the fifty-year-old narrator of his own story he manages to capture the lingering emotions of a man at once celebrating and mourning an unforgettable youthful episode. It is a highly stylized but effective performance. However, what works physically does not apply to Culkin's line delivery which is more breathless than breath taking. He seems to be holding in words in order to eject them like little bubbles as if that would relieve the somewhat nasal monotony of his voice. Furthermore, the grown-up Carl sounds no different than the young Carl.

The shortcomings of Culkin's performance brings us to Joely Richardson, the title character. The British actress, who strongly resembles her mother Vanessa Redgrave, is charming and likeable as the unmarried literature teacher forced to call herself "Madame" by the American school where Carl has been enrolled during his Ohio businessman father's Paris posting. Her problems too are vocal. She sounds more Italian than French. (The London production wisely featured a French actress).

The structure of the play is deceptively simple. It begins with a long monologue by the 50-year-old Carl during which he physically sets the scene that brought him and fellow members of a film discussion group to their teacher's book and record-filled apartment. As he moves chairs around he tells us that his two days in Madame Melville's apartment have never left him. No sooner do we hear him declare "When I think of her, or when I speak of her, in the middle of a thought, in the middle of a dream, I am forever - a boy of fifteen" than he metamorphoses into his long-ago self. That segue from present to past establishes a dreamlike mood which makes you wonder how much of the memory Carl is about to share with us is real.

This being a three-character play, by the time the chairs are lined up the little film society has disbanded. Carl has been in the bathroom and inadvertently missed everyone's departure and the last Metro to take him home. As is quickly apparent, his bathroom disappearance was an intentional ploy in hopes that being alone with Madame Melville will free him to talk as he can't in the company of his peers.

Nelson has provided good dialogue but his wordiness and direction weigh down the action. We get to know both characters -- Carl's sense of being at odds with his family as well as his fellow students; Claudie Melville's own teen-aged encounter with an older art teacher (with enough hints about her neediness as a result of a current unhappy relationship with a married teacher). For all these relevations and the inevitable sexual counter, nothing really grips us until the third character, Claudie's neighbor Ruth ( Robin Weigert), a violinist, enters the picture. That's when the whole tone shifts and, at least for a while, a sort of madcap humor prevails.

Weigert, who was also a most appealing character in Goodnight Children Everywhere, endows Ruth, an American who's left her husband and baby in hopes of living the artistic Parisian life, with a terrific range of emotions. She is natural and warm, deliciously silly but also serious about her music (just watch her listening to herself on one of the few recordings she's made!) The way she instantly assesses what's happened between Claudie and Carl is more interesting than the situation itself. It's also memorably funny. Yet, while she's there to provide the comic relief, and even jokes about crabs picked up from a casual date ("Why are the French people so unclean?"), she has not really shrugged off her past life all that casually. Her part here may be minor but it makes a major contribution.

Although I referred to this as a three-hander earlier, there is also a minor fourth character (Steve Todar), whose role is not identified in the cast listings, probably because his appearance is intended as a surprise. I therefore won't go into details except to say that his arrival adds little that's surprising and, in fact, brings Carl's idyllic recollection to an unsatisfyingly melodramatic conclusion.

When, after that conclusion, Macaulay Culkin returns to the front of the stage in his 50-year-old mode, the dreamlike aura established at the beginning is distilled by too much detail. As a consequence you start wondering about other details. Is he actually back in Claudie's apartment? If so, how did he get back in? The door and windows suspended above Thomas Lynch's appropriately bookish but not particularly Parisian apartment (a holdover from the London production) which looked right before dreaminess gave way to cross the t's and dot the i's realism, now made you question the raison d'être for their being there.

There's a lot to like about this charming memory play, but in the long run, not all that much to remember.

Good Night Children Everywhere
James Joyce's The Dead
Misha's Party/
Review of London Production
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Cast: Macaulay Culkin, Joely Richardson and Robin Weigert,
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission
Promenade, 2162 Broadway New York, NY 10024 (at West 76th Street) 239-6200
4/10/01-8/26-01; opening 5/03/01.
PerformancesTue-Sat @8PM Wed & Sat @2PM, Sun @3PM --
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/09 performance

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